Congress has a bill on its plate that would remove the sole decision-making authority over whether serious crimes are prosecuted from the military chain of command and assign these cases to …
Congress has a bill on its plate that would remove the sole decision-making authority over whether serious crimes are prosecuted from the military chain of command and assign these cases to independent trained military prosecutors. Sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and a rare plethora of senators from both political parties, 65 co-sponsors in all, the Military Justice Improvement Act also ensures survivors of sexual assault that they will not be victimized again when they report rape and other military crimes. Of the 12 U.S. Senators in New England, only 2 Senators do not support the legislation, Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed. In fact, each time the legislation is brought up on the floor for a vote bypassing the Senate Armed Services Committee, which Mr. Reed chairs, he objects and kills the effort.
Ordinarily, it should be a rare occasion when a bill bypasses a committee. For years, however, Mr. Reed’s committee has stonewalled every effort to remove the chain of command from the decision-making process. The entire time that he and Mr. Whitehouse have been in the U.S. Senate they have done bupkis and acquiesced to the lip service of the nation’s military leaders who mouth “zero tolerance” of sexual assault. Sexual assault is so pervasive yet rarely punished that the Department of Defense numbers document that these assaults have escalated while the number of prosecutions has stalled. In May 2020 the annual Defense Department report found that 6,290 service members had reported sexual assault, rapes and other unwanted sexual contact — an increase. Yet,the Pentagon further acknowledges that the actual number of incidents is 3 times higher (as many as 20,500 a year in 2018, the most recent estimate).
In late June 2021, the Secretary of Defense endorsed removing decisions about prosecuting sexual assault and related cases away from military commanders. Senator Jack Reed finally mouthed support for shifting the decision-making power for sexual assault cases and not in a stand-alone bill, only in the annual defense authorization where past efforts were watered down and doomed.
The system encased in the military now allows commanders to show favoritism to popular or senior members of their units or to cover up cases so their own prospects for promotion are not endangered by any evidence that his discipline is lacking. Senator Gillibrand disagrees with the arguments that the bill is overbroad. She noted that the murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, a 20 year old soldier at Fort Hood, whose burned and mutilated body was found 2 months after her disappearance, and who was sexually harassed, might not have come to light but for the spotlight on the investigation. An independent prosecutor is needed to prosecute a murder case in order to unveil underlying motive.
How ironic it is that those who are dedicated to upholding our constitutional rights, see their own abridged by the good old boy system. The mostly female victims who put their lives on the line should be assured that a system is in place that doesn’t discourage the reporting of sexual assault, punishes them at times of promotion, or fails to punish perpetrators.
The next time you see Senators Reed and Whitehouse, tell them to support females in the military and stop stonewalling reform.
Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.